Among the many ironies of the American War on Drugs, the situation of drug abusers in prison ranks high on the list. Despite decades of research showing that drug treatment can be effective, the federal government has failed to offer it consistently, on demand, for prisoners who need rehabilitation. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that only one-fifth of inmates needing formal treatment are able to get it.
Why aren’t imprisoned drug addicts getting treatment, instead of ready access to a continuing supply of whatever they are addicted to? “Addiction is a stigmatized disease that the criminal justice system often fails to view as a medical condition,” says the report’s lead author, Dr. Redonna K. Chandler, chief of NIDA’s Services Research Branch. “As a consequence, its treatment is not as available as it is for other medical conditions.”
The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that roughly half of all prisoners suffer some degree of drug dependency. “Treating drug abusing offenders improves public health and safety,” asserts co-author and NIDA director Dr. Nora D. Volkow, citing increased risk of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C among addicts. “Providing drug abusers with treatment also makes it less likely that these abusers will return to the criminal justice system.”
While the high cost of treatment is often cited as a reason for its general absence from the prison infrastructure, Chandler says the cost benefits of treating drug-involved offenders is obvious: “A dollar spent on drug courts saves about $4 in avoided costs of incarceration and health care; and prison-based treatment saves between $2 and $6.”
Adds Volkow: “Viewing addiction as a disease does not remove the responsibility of the individual. It highlights the responsibility of the addicted person to get drug treatment and society’s responsibility to make treatment available.”